In a brief but prolific period, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records took over the world. Thanks to a roster of artists making some of the greatest music ever recorded and astute management, this little Detroit label made history. Here is the story behind the music.
After a career which included boxing, the army, opening an unsuccessful jazz record store and working on the assembly line at a Lincoln-Mercury plant, Berry Gordy Jr. got his start in the music business by writing songs for Jackie Wilson, whom he met through family connections. Gordy had a hand in hits including “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops” in the late 1950s; however, he was disappointed by the amount of money he made and realized the way to make more was to produce records himself and own the publishing rights.
William “Smokey” Robinson, the lead singer of The Miracles—the band Berry had just discovered—encouraged him to start his own label. He also received an offer to go into business with his sisters, who had also written a number of songs with him and started their own label, Anna Records, but he wanted to go it alone. Despite his decision to reject their offer, his family still gave him a loan of $800, which he combined with his royalty earnings to found Tamla Records on January 12, 1959.
He bought a former photography studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and converted the ground floor into offices and a small recording studio, with him and his wife living upstairs. The label’s first signing was The Miracles, but the first Tamla release was Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” released in May 1959.
By the time The Miracles had their first hit, “Bad Girl,” that August, Gordy was playing around with the label’s name, and it became the debut release under a new label, Motown. Given his connections to the Detroit auto industry, it seemed a more fitting name. Tamla continued too, having its first hit with Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” which was released in August and went on to make it to number two on the Billboard R&B charts in 1960.
Tamla and Motown were combined to officially become the Motown Record Corporation on April 14, 1960, and later that year, The Miracles gave the label its first R&B number one and first million-selling record, “Shop Around.” The following year, the label had its first U.S. number one with “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes. Meanwhile, talented young artists such as Mary Wells, The Supremes, and The Temptations were being acquired and whipped into shape by Gordy’s exacting standards. Every song had to pass a committee, and the artists’ public image, dress, and choreography were all carefully managed; this, along with his eye for talent, was Gordy’s greatest gift.
As the hits began to flow, the label grew, expanding into nearby buildings and taking on more staff, including almost all of Gordy’s family and the key songwriting and production team Holland–Dozier–Holland. By the middle of the decade, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Four Tops had all joined and had hits for the label, which now had a signature sound. The Motown Sound was a mix of soul and pop that other labels were unable to replicate. By the end of the decade, Motown had around 100 top 10 hits, an incredible achievement for the size of the operation and the racial barriers the predominantly African-American label faced.
Unfortunately, it couldn’t last. In the wake of the 1967 Detroit riots, the label began to move its operations to L.A., losing a number of key staff members and artists in the process. By 1972, it left Detroit altogether, and despite a still strong roster, including The Jacksons, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, it began to decline throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
Berry Gordy sold Motown in 1988 when the label began to lose money, and the story of one of the greatest record labels the world has known was over. However, the music left behind will ensure that the Motown story never really ends, remaining as popular today as it has ever been.
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